Chinese art is boosted by the company Powerlong Group’s brand new museum in Shanghai.
Besides Powerlong Painting Academy, Powerlong Art Center, XU Gallery and Powerlong Auction, Powerlong Art Museum is the new initiative in the arts and culture industry being fostered by the Chinese commercial colossus.
Contrasting with the international outlook of other art patrons who have opened private museums in Shanghai, the 65-year-old founder of the Powerlong Group, Xu Jiankang, focuses on national artists working in traditional forms at the recently opened Powerlong Museum.
A press release announces that the museum will present a “systematic study of the current development of Oriental aesthetics in the present era, […] a completely different path from the mainstream in the Western world.” The neighbouring Hongqiao airport appropriately serves mainly domestic destinations, chiming with the museum’s focus on Chinese art. Inevitably, some artists represented are also international figures. Prominent at the entrance to the museum are the signature chrome ‘scholar rocks’, or ‘onjiashanshi‘, of conceptual artist Zhan Wang, that have also become ubiquitous as an urbane Chinese flavour in many international settings. Xu has also sponsored fireworks performances by New York-based Cai Guoqiang, such as Sky Ladder (2015), which became the subject of a Netflix movie, Sky Ladder (2016), directed by Kevin Macdonald.
The inaugural exhibition entitled “Tracing the Past and Shaping the Future” comprises more than 300 works by 80 artists. Many of those in the show have a high status domestically but outside China and its diaspora there is little general understanding of the ink painting form, or consensus as to its status. Some artists, such as Han Meilin, who paints appealing animals with a few arabesque brushstrokes, challenges the comfort zone of connoisseurs of a transatlantic mindset. Rigorous adherence to the defined parameters of an unwavering historic practice, and a shared collective outlook counter a Western vision of artists who must innovate – and be detached. The range of work, sprawling through the museum’s 23,000 square metres of exhibition space, opens visitors’ eyes to vitality and diversity within formal constraints.
Powerlong’s mission is “to assume the responsibility of the public aesthetic education”, and to, “pay attention to the combination of art and life, to create a fusion of art, life, and aesthetic sense of space”. A few pieces of furniture and design items are found in the galleries as a setting for paintings and this links the museum’s outlook to central European museums that, following the spirit of Germany’s definitive Bauhaus arts education, are more likely than their US counterparts to put fine art side by side with applied art. In the future, the museum intends to display sculpture, architecture, gardening, video and opera, besides painting and writing art. The latter has a central place, because calligraphy grounds brush art in everyday life, in language and common meanings.
Vast and spectacular atrium spaces are appropriately conceived in the monochrome palette of ink and paper. Traditional brush painting tends to be relatively modest in scale. It is often contemplative, and intended for an intimate setting. This creates tension with the ambition of the architecture. A feeling of vulnerability pervades many of the displays, where aching subtlety does not compete with the context. Ultimately, this proves to be a potent reminder of general ecological vulnerabilities, one of the pervading anxieties of the present era. Expanses of plate glass and white stone contrast with paintings connected to the spirit of nature, reminding the visitor of the fragility of this essence in the contemporary world.
Another feature of the museum is a spiraling ramp. It is a quotation of the famous rotunda in architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York. The citation is significant, as the US museum’s patron, Solomon R. Guggenheim (1861–1949), also originally championed art with spiritual aims, in the form of nonobjective abstraction.
Powerlong Museum’s agenda is also expressed in the paintings themselves, such as Lu Yanshao’s Two Horse Rock Pass (1977). The painting shows a procession of partisans with red flags approaching a pavilion in a mountainous landscape. A small group has held back, stopping to admire the titular natural arrangement of rocks, demonstrating how nature’s force inspires revolutionary zeal. Executed in pale mineral colours at the end of the Cultural Revolution, it is inward looking, disassociated with other contemporary art produced outside China. Such radical disjuncture makes for much interesting comparison.
1962 was the year Andy Warhol produced the series Dollar Bills, his first works using screen printing, while in 1955 Jasper John’s painted American Flag. Both have been influential pronouncements of contemporaneity in the West, relating to the conditions of their times. In the trajectory of brush painting, the relationship to nature is foremost. For example, in the delicate nostalgia of works such as Deng Fen’s Spring Breeze, a White Horse Approaches (1959), where three women react to the arrival of a mounted visitor. Executed at the time of China’s push for rural industrialisation, the poetic title suggests natural dynamics beyond what is immediately shown. The affairs of the world are expressed indirectly through the juxtaposition of image and poetry.
In other works, such as Huang Binhong’s Searching for Mountain Streams (1953), it is possible to conceive of some formal equivalence with Tachist works from the same period by French abstract artists such as Henri Michaux or Pierre Soulages. However, the manner of the work actually relates to far older sources in the landscapes of the Song and Ming Dynasty. There is, across time and place, a concurrent objective, to show more than only outward appearances.
Recent works retain connections to the motifs of the past. Liang Shijin’s Pine Tree (2005-7) is a full-scale fac-simile, its needles precisely carved and its form assembled from sections of golden wood, bolted together. By reconstructing the pine, a symbol of longevity, steadfastness and self-discipline, the work highlights the noble task of restoring these values. Pin Shi’s Blossom Appears (2015) is a humorous sculptural rendition of a traditional scene. The ungainly creation could have been undertaken in the straggly area of light industrial fabricators that exists in the proximity of the museum – just the target audience that the Museum intends to enlighten and inspire.
The museum’s director Li Xiaofeng comments:
Chinese cultural identity is important as China integrates with the world. That will be the topic we will continue to center our exhibitions around, and invite audiences to anticipate the development of Chinese culture over the next 100 years.
The curator of the inaugural exhibition sounds a more strident tone in an introductory text, referring to the marginalisation of Chinese art as injury to “the style and demeanor in the soul”, and the aims of the exhibition as “a traditional regeneration towards the future”.
As China’s importance in the world grows, Powerlong Museum has an ambitious mission to draw a new cultural map that will bring national contemporary art back into the lives of ordinary people.
- “Screaming Books”: Galerie Ora-Ora opens new space at H Queen’s, Hong Kong – in conversation with Henrietta Tsui-Leung – March 2018 – “Screaming Books” opened on 1 March 2018, marking a major milestone for Galerie Ora-Ora, and the wider Hong Kong art scene
- A pioneer of China’s ’85 New Wave: Geng Jianyi (1962-2017) – artist profile – March 2018 – a prominent figure in China’s ’85 New Wave movement, Geng Jianyi passed away on 5 December 2017 at age 55
- Cotton and clay: Chinese artist Yin Xiuzhen’s reflections on society’s condition – in conversation – March 2018 – unabated urbanisation, excessive consumerism, the homogenising effect of globalisation, and the world encompassing environmental crisis are some of the topical issues tackled in the works of Yin Xiuzhen
- Globalising Shanghai’s art market: Art021 and West Bund Art and Design 2017 – art fairs round-up – November 2017 – Shanghai’s Art021 and West Bund Art and Design contributing to build the city’s reputation as a hub for the visual arts in East Asia
- Wang Nanming appointed new Director of Shanghai Himalayas Museum – July 2017 – the Chinese critic and artist will lead the Shanghai institution after Yongwoo Lee
Subscribe to Art Radar for more news on Shanghai’s arts and culture scene